Hip Hop History ~ Sha-Rock

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Sha-Rock was born in ’62, one of three sisters and a brother in North Carolina.  In one house there was a piano Sha-Rock used to play to take her mind off the violence – Dad used to beat her mom until she left him.  After the family moved, Sha-Rock had to be bused thirty miles to another school which made her mom and her partner Bob furious.  They would also attend rallies and protests and were interested in the case of the Wilmington 10 Black Panthers.  After a shooting incident involving the police and a next door neighbour who was a Panther, the family moved to the Bronx, New York for two years.  Sha-Rock was eight years old.  Bob had a reel to reel tape which was off limits to the kids and Sha-Rock would listen to Isaac Hayes, The Delfonics, and The Sylistics when her parents were out.  In ’71 the family moved to Harlem.  Sha-Rock started listening to Nikki Giovanni, Betty Wright, and Slyvia.

Her first performance was playing the lead part of an African dancer in an African ensemble for Black History Month at IS 10 (also known as Horace Greeley Middle School).  Her mother told her off for looking ‘stiff and scared and not putting her all into it’.  Sha-Rock says “One thing I’ve learned from that experience was never doubt or short change myself.  Don’t get me wrong, mom wasn’t some kind of stage mom that didn’t give her children their props.  But, mom was right.  I was more focused on how the other girls were dancing than perfecting my part in the dance routine and not giving my all.  From that day forward, I learned to focus on me, and what it was I needed to do.  I needed to master the craft; whatever it may be … and then move onto the next”.  in ’73 the family moved back to the Bronx and she attended IS 145 (also known as Joseph Pulitzer Middle School) and then Evander  High School.

Sha-Rock met her friend JJ (MC Jazzy Jeff, not to be confused with DJ Jazzy Jeff) at IS 10 and he went on to become an MC with her in The Funky Four Plus One.  Back then, “He was kind of on the nerdy side, but we both had a lot in common, one thing being we both loved music.  During lunch period, he would always go home and get his boom box [he lived a block away from the school] so we could all hang out in the schoolyard park.  JJ had all of the songs that he had taped from the radio.  Chaka Khan and Rufus’ Sweet Thing, Boz Scaggs’ Low Down, Ohio Players’ Roller Coaster, and Vicki Sue Robinson’s Turn The Best Around to name just a few.”

One day at a house party, JJ introduced Sha-Rock to his cousins, Mike and Pee Wee who were B-Boys, part of the Nine Crew.  Sha-Rock started breaking and became a secret weapon of the crew.  Through breaking Sha-Rock met Keith and Kevin the Nigger Twins, B-boys down with Kool Herc, and others down with Africa Bambaataa and the Zulu Kings.

At one park jam, Sha-Rock heard DJ Kool Herc and two MCs, Coke La Rock and Timmy Timand, the first MCs she witnessed on the mic.  “They would MC by making all of the announcements for the upcoming jams and giving shootouts.  Their rhymes weren’t intense or for a long period of time.  They were known for bigging up the crew and Herc by letting the crowd know whose party it was.  They would shout over the mic “The sounds you hear is deaf to your ear…have no fear ’cause Herc is here.”

While Sha-Rock was attending Evander High School she helped hand out flyers for Richie Tee and overheard him telling another boy about auditions for MCs the Brother’s Discos were having.    She expressed interest and Richie took her to DJ Breakout’s house for the audition.  Here she met Jazzy D who named her Sha-Rock, KK Rockwell and Keith Keith – who along with Rahiem, who joined later, and Jazzy Jeff, were to be The Funky Four Plus One – the ‘Plus One’ being Sha-Rock.  Jazzy D was the manager of the group until Lil’ Rodney C (the member who replaced Rahiem) took over after their first national tour.

After the audition Sha-Rock thought “KK and Keith had rhymes for days.  They had routines that they did together and they sounded good.  I knew I had to come harder … Even though they were amped and hyped up from the way I was rocking the mic, I still had the impression for some reason that they weren’t really feeling the girl on the mic thing.  It was almost as though they weren’t one hundred percent convinced that a girl could really be an MC.”  So she started writing rhymes – the first one, on the bus:

“I realised that I didn’t have any contact numbers for anyone so I could ask for directions.  Then, it all started coming together, my first rhyme.

“I have this book from A-Z.  It’s a little black book that belongs to me.  It has your name, number, and address, too so when I wanna talk I’ll just call up you.  And, when I’m by myself and all alone, I just turn to the Rs and reach for the phone.  Sha-Rock, I’m rocking’ on.”

By that time, the people on the bus were looking at me as if I was crazy because I was mumbling the words.  I didn’t write anything down, so I would recite the words over and over again.”

A few days later at the Boston Secor Community Center Sha-Rock publicly performed as an MC alongside the others for the first time.

In her book “Luminary Icon: The Story of the Beginning and End of Hip Hop’s First Female MC”, Sha-Rock states:

“Although there have been several stories that may have floated around over the years from writers, MCs and some Hip Hop historians about the authenticity of who was the first female MC, forget what you have heard, I was the first female MC.  Females were not extinct from the onset of Hip Hop culture.  I was there from the beginning.  Many groups followed by incorporating a female as well.  There were many females whom had just begun to emerge as up and coming MCs whose intentions were to place their mark on the streets of the Bronx.  Everybody in New York City knew not only was I the first female MC, but I also was the best female MC.” Also. “Depending on what park jams you were at, you may have seen a female rocking the mic, but that did not mean that she was the first female MC”.

Females who were also near the start of Hip Hop include MC Smiley, Peeblee Poo, Lil’ Lee and Queen Lisa Lee.

Regarding MC Smiley; “The first time I had the opportunity to meet MC Smiley, she was a MC for The Mercedes Ladies, and she was a very good MC. One of the stories that I had heard was that she was a MC for the L Brothers, but the Funky Four was already in effect.  We had played and battled the L Brothers many times in the 63 park.  It was a school yard where most pioneers had the opportunity to rock.  However, the only MCs that was rocking at the time with the group was Kevi Kev and Master Rob, who were brothers, and occasionally Starsky, who presently goes by the name of The Cheifrocker Busy Bee.  And besides, MC Smiley was a member of the Mercedes Ladies, in which they have and always acknowledged that I, Sha Rock, was first.”

On Peeblee Poo; “I had met Peebles around 1982 and she was with a group who was called Master Don and the Death Committee.  They had just released their first single called Funk Box Party.  There were several songs that were released also during that year.  Planet Rock by Africa Bambaataa, The Message by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, but when I heard the song Funk Box, I almost lost my mind. . I felt that not only was the beat hot, Peeblee’s style and voice made the song come alive.  And I just had to tell her that.  We begin to form some kind of bond after that. … When I asked Peebles about it, she replied that being the first female was never her claim.  She stated that she was going solely on her claim to be the first female soloist”.

Sha-Rock says of Lil’ Lee “One day, the Brothers Disco had given a jam at 23 park, which was located in the Bronx.  Lil’ Lee had introduced herself to me and she had also relayed to me that she liked the way that I rhymed.  She had asked if we could hang out together.  I agreed.  She never told me she was an MC.  I later saw her at a park jam that DJ A.J. had given and she was rocking on the mic.  Since that day, I hadn’t seen or heard of her rocking at any park jams, or when Hip Hop was moved into the clubs.”

Sha-Rock gives respect to Queen Lisa Lee: “”There were several female MCs whom I’ve had great pleasure of knowing, and still to this day have mad respect for their skills on the mic.  Queen Lisa Lee is at the top of the list … I’ve always felt that she could have been the next Sha-Rock, and to tell you the truth, she probably felt as if I could have been the next Lisa Lee.  Lisa was more than confident about her skills.  And she had a right to be.  She was just that good.”  Taste was another MC, who like Lisa Lee, worked with Africa Bambaataa.

Other female MCs from the early days included the rest of The Mercedes Ladies – Baby D (D’Bora), Sherri-Sher, Zina-Zee, DJ LaSpank, and Eve-a-Def.  Sweet P and Sty-Sty were later members.  Also, MCs Sweet & Sour, and Debbie D, Sparky D, as well as Sequence, the all-female group consisting of Cheryl The Pearl, Angie B (now known as Angie Stone) and Blondy.

The Funky Four Plus One was made up of  Jazzy Jeff, KK Rockwell, Keith Keith, Sha-Rock and Raheim, the last member to join.  DJ Breakout was their DJ.  They were established before Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, who Rahiem later joined, to be replaced by Lil’ Rodney C.  There was great rivalry between The Funky and The Furious.

Sha-Rock describes how the Funky Four Plus One would perform: ” We became the first rap group to use mic stands in our routines.  We would set them upfront by DJ Breakout and Baron while they’d cut up the song as we rhymed … We were like the hood version of Gladys Knight and The Pips … We had become the first group to incorporate rhyming and harmonizing.  Before us, most MCs were just saying the basic rhymes.  Harmonizing was when the whole group would say a rhyme together in a singing format.”

“Rahiem was also known for bringing a different flavour of harmonizing and singing to the group.  He was an asset to the group because he could mimic any song that was out and could flip it so that the song would fit the routine that we were doing.  He performed as one of the original members of the funky four up until May of ’79.  There were no groups at the time that had that particular formula like us.  We made everyone step their game up. … KK and Keith’s routine allowed them to go back and forth between each other rhyming patterns.  Their routines made the Funky Four even stronger.

“We even started using melodies from sitcoms that were on television, such as Gilligan’s Island.  We would switch it around to MC about what we may have been going through at the time.  Sometimes, we would make up stuff or bragged about material stuff we wanted.  The difference between us and other groups was that we were story tellers.  Each of us could rhyme for minutes on the mic before passing the mic to the next person.”

The Funky Four Plus One had a group of young men and women from Uptown (where Jazzy D and DJ Breakout lived) who would rock with the group whenever they performed, because Jazzy D didn’t want them to be associated with street gangs.  “The men would wear all white shirts with black lettering that read Brother’s Disco.  The females would wear shirts that had Sister’s Disco written across them.  And, of course, I would wear the famous green shirt with yellow letters that read I’m Sha-Rock and I can’t be stopped.

“The Brother’s and Sister’s Disco had many roles.  They would serve as security for the group, but they were also responsible for getting the crowd hyped.  They knew all of our routines and they would echo the last words that we’d say in each line.  The Sister’s Disco would also monitor the behaviour of other females to ensure there were no beefs or problems when it came to me.  As I look back, that could have been one of the reasons why I never had any problems.  Their presence alone would let anyone know that they were here for business.”

“we were also known for having the best sound system in New York City.  It was so serious that we even had a name for our sound system.  We called it the mighty Sasquatch.  That set us apart from the rest.  Our sound system was exceptional.  We made speakers out of fifty five gallon barrel oil cans.  We also put about five or six inch lifts on them so the sound would carry.

“We even incorporated mid range and base speakers inside, and laid them on the ground.  We had a string of tweeters, so if another DJ was DJing in the same park or venue as we were, we could drown them out with the tweeters alone.

“All of the extra bells and whistles we had made the records sound very crisp and clear.  It was as if it was being played live.  You could be seven or eight blocks away from the jam and you still would be able to hear every rhyme clear as though you were there.”

“We threw jams everywhere.  In parks, school yards, and local community centers.  We weren’t making any real money for any of the shows that we were giving, especially outside.  Now, for the jams inside, we did get paid.  BAck then, we weren’t charging a lot of money to get into the jams.  Your average jam would cost anywhere from three to five dollars to get in, a big difference from twenty to thirty dollars that are charged these days.  After the jam, we would at least have enough money to pay for the train ride, cab fair, or enough to get some White Castle.  For us, the payoff came from the recognition and the credibility we received from the streets.  The hood loved us, we loved them, and that was invaluable.”

During the Battle era which swept the New York City area, The Funky and the Furious had several battles.  One battle that meant a lot to Sha-Rock was held at The Audubon ballroom in Manhatten, where Malcolm X gave his historical speech and was gunned down.  Sha-Rock knew in her heart of hearts “that we could take them” but “At times, I felt as though Rahiem thought that we were inferior to The Furious.  I felt that we were number one.”  The night off the battle, Rahiem said he was sick and did not give his all.  Also, “The plan was that we were going to tire the crowd out by all of the routines and the crowd participation that we had in store however, little did we know that they would switch it up on us.  I didn’t know how they did it, but they were able to get the time changed so that they would get on two groups before we did … By the time we were scheduled to go on stage, the crowd was exhausted.”  The Furious won the Battle and the Funky came second.  Soon it was found that Rahiem had planned to join the Furious Five and KK and Keith felt he had sabotaged the Funky’s performance in the battle.  Sha-Rock was upset and also left the group briefly.

In ’79 The Sugar Hill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight” and Sha-Rock explains that even though everyone was feeling the song, “MCs in the communities, however, began to feel slighted.  We had been on the grind for years, and out of nowhere three guys from New Jersey whom no-one had ever heard of had this hit record and the world would know them as the first rappers/MCs.  And, to be honest, I had a problem with that.”

That year The Funky Four Plus One signed to Enjoy Records first, followed by Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five.  Next they moved to Sugar Hill Records and so did the Furious Five.

“The Sugar Hill Gang’s record was playing on every radio station around the world.  None of us were fans of Sugar Hill Gang, but we respected the fact that she was able to pull it off.  My thoughts were if she could take three non MCs and throw them together to make an admirable success, then Lord knows how far she could take us.  We all felt that if we could sign with Sugar Hill Records, we would reach international stardom. … I think we all had it in our minds that we were going to rock with Sugar Hill Records.  We were young and we weren’t really too concerned with the legal ramifications.  We were just excited to be offered a contract and having the opportunity to tour, like so many young artists are today.”

Rapping and Rocking The House was released in ’79 under Enjoy Records and it was the longest rap record for at least a decade.

That’s the Joint from 1980 – recorded in one take:

The Funky Four Plus One felt that Sugar Hill Records showed favouritism to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, for example providing for them “a new beat [Freedom] that we had just started rocking to in the Bronx, not to mention it was the hottest song that theDJs were spinning at the time”.

In ’81 Sha-Rock had her first child Sha-ti-a.  Later with her husband Michael Jackson, who she married in ’86, she had Michael, and Sencere, as well as adopting Keith.

In ’82 the group released Do You Want to Rock (Before I Let Go):

In ’83 “Feel It” (The Mexican) came out:

On the first Sugar Hill tour, The Funky Four Plus One performed alongside headliners The Sugar Hill Gang, The Gap Band, Sequence and The Furious Five.  But while The Sugar Hill Gang and Sequence were getting paid, after several sold out performances The Funky only received $500 each, even though the rate was supposed to be $300 per night.

Once off tour the group would set up shows themselves in the Bronx and New York City and earn better money that way, than by shows booked by the label.  They appeared on the Duke Baldwin Cable show as the first Hip Hop group to be shown on Cable TV.  They started doing shows in Downtown Manhattan where punk rockers hung out.  There they met Fab Five Freddy, whose friend Debbie Harry from Blondie was hosting Saturday Night Live.  He said he thought The Funky Four Plus One should appear on the show which they did.   By this time the members of the group only received $800 each in royalties from sales of That’s The Joint.  After months without being given a promised sales report, the group started to try and get out of the contract.  Rodney and KK wanted out but Syvia Robinson would only let these two go, not the entire group.  Sha, Jeff and Keith signed a new contract.  The group was effectively split up.  Rodney C and KK Rockwell became a duo and The New Funky Four were Jazzy Jeff, Keith Keith, Ikey C and Sha-Rock.

Sha-Rock, Queen Lisa Lee and Debbie D formed a new group The US Girls and appeared in the movie Beat Street before disbanding.

Here is a clip from the movie Beat Street featuring Us Girls:

Sha-Rock now lives in Texas with her family, works as a Training Officer in the correctional  field, and volunteers for the Rich Girlz Club as well as educating people about Hip Hop history and culture.  She has received several awards for her contribution to Hip Hop.

Justin Bua has written that “Unlike the majority of today’s female MCs, Sha-Rock wasn’t selling sex nor was she looked upon as being a sex object.  Simply put: she was a talented MC.  She wasn’t flashy, gimmicky, or cliche in any way, shape or form.  She was just a girl from the Bronx who loved to rap and was there first.  There’s something to be said about being the first.  Its easy to look back and glorify the beginnings of a culture.  The truth is, pioneers often suffer, creatively, personally, professionally, because not only are they quickly forgotten, but they also don’t get paid their due.  Its easy to forget how hard it is to be ahead of the curve, to to have your finger on the pulse before everyone else.  Sha-Rock was the first female  MC in the game and because of that she was scrutinised.  Men were stepping to her and trying to battle her.  But when they put her on the spot, they quickly realised her skill set was on par with the best.  When MCs stepped to Sha, she served fools.  As Grand Wizard Theodore said to me, “Sha would tell a story that we all could visualise.  She was ridiculously intelligent; the way she flipped her words was profound.  Sha-Rock was our generation’s MC Lyte.  she was the best of the era”.  While Latifah is the Queen, Sha-Rock was the first to rule.  She paved the way for all future female MCs and for that, we should pay our respect.”

Here website is here:

http://www.mcsharockonline.com/

And her book “Luminary Icon” can be purchased here:

http://www.mcsharockonline.com/rapidcart/store.html

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